A judge's decision to uphold Alabama's stringent new immigration law has led immigrants to flee their homes, pull their children from school and avoid farming jobs at the height of harvesting season.
The law's authors said that it would compensate for lax federal enforcement by cracking down on illegal immigration. It imposes immigration status checks at schools, businesses and routine police stops, and appears to have stoked widespread fears of deportation.
One of the most controversial provisions of the law requires schools to check the immigration status of new students. U.S. District Judge Sharon Blackburn rebuffed a challenge to that mandate, arguing that it does not interfere with a federal law guaranteeing that undocumented students receive K-12 education. Critics of the measure contended that the law would deter parents from enrolling their children in school.
If you start collecting information about the immigration status of students, parents aren't going to send the students to schools because they're going to be afraid of getting deported and it will chill them from executing a basic constitutional right, said Kevin Johnson, dean of the University of California, Davis Law School. I think undocumented immigrant communities feel vulnerable and threatened, and are very fearful of ending up in deportation proceedings.
School districts across the state have reported plummeting attendance among Latino students, including 1,998 absences on Friday, or about 5 percent of the state's Latino student population. Officials are scrambling to avert an escalating problem -- a school official in Hunstville to appear on a Spanish language program and reassure parents that students do not have anything to fear, and the Alabama Department of Education is formulating ways to assuage fears and communicate to parents that they are not at risk of deportation.
Obviously, there's a fear factor about what the law is in regard to the schools, Keith Ward, a spokesman for Huntsville City Schools, which had 207 absences of Hispanic students on Thursday, told CBS. We're not doing any enforcement. We're in the business and have the obligation to educate all students. For us, it's just data collection.
But the mother of a Latino student at a Montgomery County school said in a court brief that a teacher had asked students about the status of their parents. The alleged incident encapsulates worries that the school status checks will extend beyond students.
Another provision in the law authorizes police officers to ask about the legal status of people they detain or arrest if they have reasonable suspicion that the person is in the country illegally. The implication is that even minor run-ins like traffic violations could result in deportations.
We cannot even go out and buy food, Perla Perez, who has lived in Alabama for the past five years without legal status, told CNN. Residents of Albertville, whose poultry plants have long made it a magnet for immigrant labor, have abandoned their homes or avoided venturing outside.
It is not just immigrants who are feeling the impact. Frustrated farmers complained to lawmakers that the law was frightening off the immigrant workers, some of them illegal, that are a reliable source of labor at harvesting time. Farmers in Georgia had similar criticisms after the state passed its own harsh immigration law.
The tomatoes are rotting on the vine, and there is very little we can do, said Chad Smith, who farms tomatoes with his uncle, father and brother.
You can contact the reporter at j.white@IBTimes.com